A Perspective on the Ceasefire
by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
"In our self-restraint is strength." That is how Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently characterized his administration's policy of unilateral cease-fire, still in effect as of this writing. Since this is not a political column (in spite of it's being politically incorrect), I shall not here address the question of the wisdom of Mr. Sharon's policy. Time will tell whether it will bring us any closer to peace.
But the idea he stated strikes a chord. For the association of self-restraint and strength occupies a highly significant place in Jewish tradition.
The classic compendium of Jewish philosophy, Ethics of the Fathers, begins with a brief sketch of the chain of tradition: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly..."
Who were the Men of the Great Assembly? They were the Sandhedrin that presided over the Jewish people at the beginning of the Second Temple period (over a thousand years before the founding of Islam). In a time of transition, of repatriation and rebuilding, they were the ones who laid the foundation of Jewish life for centuries to come. Much of the structure of prayer that we have today, for example, the Shemoneh Esrei and Kaddish, were composed by them.
Their momentous task was not only to reconstitute the outer structure of Jewish life, but also to reconstruct the Jewish national psyche; to prepare the people for a new mode of perception in a new era. This is why they were called "The Men of the Great Assembly"---because they "restored the crown to its former glory." In the wake of the destruction of the First Temple seventy years earlier by the Babylonians, the glory of G-d and His people was obscured. Whereas Moses had called G-d "great, mighty and awesome," even prophets such as Jeremiah and Daniel could no longer perceive those Divine attributes. If the enemy invader could brazenly cavort in the Temple area where once the awesome holiness of the place would have been enough to kill him; and if foreign nations could enslave the people of Israel with impunity; where was G-d's awesomeness and might? Since they could not perceive it, being men of truth, they ceased mentioning those names of G-d in their prayers.
When the Men of the Great Assembly came onto the scene, they were able to perceive those attributes of G-d once again. For if not for His awesomeness, how could Israel survive among the nations, like a sheep among seventy wolves? And if not for His strength, how could He restrain Himself from punishing the enemies of Israel?
They were able to identify a new relationship of G-d with the world. True, the Temple was in ruins and the people in exile; but they had been brought back to Jerusalem through miracles. Not the kind of miracles they once had witnessed at the Splitting of the Red Sea. Or the spectacular victories won by Joshua in conquering the Land. In Persia, in the Purim story, they were saved from their enemies, Haman and Achash-vereus, through a series of seeming coincidences that were actually the hidden hand of G-d. In the Temple destruction, G-d had not abandoned them; He was still there, but restraining His wrath against the invader. The salvation of the Jews of Persia showed that He would keep His promise that the Jewish people would survive no matter what.
But it was more than just a matter of survival. As Jeremy Kagan in The Jewish Self explains, the goal of history is not merely that the Creator should reveal Himself and rule the world, imposing His will artificially through open miracles and spectacular military victories. Rather, He holds back, and allows us to choose our destiny; choosing to recognize Him and have a relationship with Him despite the suffering of the exile. Thus, the selfhood of the Jewish nation becomes a function of the Creator's self-restraint.
It took seventy years---from the destruction of the First Temple to the beginning of the Second---for this new perception to crystallize, but there it was. The greatness, the awesomeness and the might of G-d could be reinstated in the structure of Jewish prayer. Not that it was yet clear to everyone. The Men of the Great Assembly could perceive the altered relationship between G-d and Israel. The arduous task of clarifying and internalizing that new vision in the nation as a whole would take generations.
Indeed, we are still working on it today. It's not so easy to recognize Divine intervention in the discovery of bomb after bomb just in the nick of time to save countless lives when we see other bombs that are not discovered in time. It's hard to celebrate the miracles and grieve over the victims of terror in the same day. We yearn to see the crown restored to its full glory.
Whether or not Mr. Sharon had any of these things in mind when he made his remark or not, is immaterial. What matters is that we should be aware of them. What matters is that we learn to perceive the hand of G-d in the arena of history.
And to see the strength in the midst of such restraint.
* Reprinted with permission from www.e-geress.org.